This Gotham review contains spoilers. For the spoiler-free version, click here.
I will get this out of the way right up front so that there is no confusion. If you’ve read my TV ramblings in the past, you may already know where this is going. You can’t (with rare exceptions) judge a TV show by its pilot. There’s too much heavy-lifting that has to be done. If the show is particularly high concept (as Gotham is), there’s an even steeper hill to climb. When it’s a show that has some extra baggage that comes with it (of the bat-winged variety that Gotham has), then those problems will be magnified.
With that in mind, the Gotham pilot (directed by Danny Cannon) becomes even more difficult to judge. When it works, it works very well. But when it doesn’t, there are moments that land with resounding thuds so heavy that you almost expect them to appear in technicolor, Batman ’66 style, on screen. There’s some real promise here, though, but the show will have to get out of its own way first.
If you’re reading this, you’re already familiar with the basic concept of Gotham. Essentially, “Gotham City before Batman and/or the Rise of Jim Gordon.” If you’re at all familiar with recent iterations of Batman’s origin stories from the films or the comics, you know the basics, and Gotham is fairly faithful to what you’ve come to expect. Young Detective James Gordon, newcomer to the Gotham City Police Department, quickly establishes himself as the one good cop in a city rapidly losing its soul. Along the way we meet familiar characters like Oswald Cobblepot, Edward Nygma, Selina Kyle, Harvey Bullock, Alfred Pennyworth, and, of course, young Bruce Wayne.
For one thing, the cast, at least those that we get to spend any significant amount of time with, is excellent. In particular, Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon and Donal Logue as Harvey Bullock work very well, which is a good thing, considering that the show will ultimately stand or fall on their chemistry. As far as other “established” characters in this world, it may be worth paying special attention to Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot, and David Mazouz’s Bruce Wayne, as well.
Bruce Wayne is, of course, the elephant in the room. Gotham essentially kicks off with the murder of the Waynes, and Bruce has several scenes. David Mazouz brings the necessary intensity to the character, and his immediate bond with Jim Gordon is something that feels very right. In fact, that iconic moment when the Waynes meet their fate is handily the most detailed (and even gruesome) version we’ve ever seen on screen, and this, along with Gordon’s chat with the traumatized young boy wouldn’t be out of place as the first ten minutes or so of a proper Batman movie. Moments like these are when Gotham does its best work.
The murder of the Waynes is also a pretty killer recreation to the cover of Batman #404, which kicked off the legendary Batman: Year One story, which Gotham owes a tremendous debt to (more on that in a future article).
Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot stands out, as well. Another good thing, as his rise to criminal fame will mirror Jim Gordon’s rise to the top of the police department. It’s pretty clear that this season’s villainous arc will belong firmly to the Penguin. He gets a properly terrifying finale that owes a hint of debt to the Batman Returns version of the character, but with a street level brutality that would be at home in the Nolan films. Plenty of room to grow, here.
It’s far too early to tell what to expect of Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma, although he certainly looks the part. I could have done without the fact that he already addresses folks in riddles, but I’m willing to dismiss this as a “pilot problem” and that he’ll grow a little more organically throughout the season. Jada Pinkett Smith, who may have the toughest job of the lot playing a character with no real ties to established Batman lore, Fish Mooney, is quite memorable, and holds her own against the more colorful characters on the show. And yes, that’s very much a Joker tease with the struggling comedian on stage, but it’s understood that the show is going to tease us with potential Jokers until everyone looks like a clown to us, so don’t get your hopes up just yet.
We don’t see nearly enough of Camren Bicondova’s Selina Kyle to make much a proper judgment, here, but I’ll say this much: the idea of making Selina Kyle a witness to the Wayne murder is an entirely too convenient plot device. Not everything needs to be connected.
Along with these performances, Gotham looks great, although there’s an element of inconsistency here, too. Just as the show can’t seem to decide whether it wants to play it straight as a crime drama that just happens to feature familiar elements (the wiser, albeit riskier choice) and a broader, more explicitly comic book style adaptation, so does its production design. Scenes fluctuate between a very recognizable New York City, to more stylized sets and lighting choices. It’s a little jarring, and it’s just another symptom of Gotham‘s larger identity crisis. There are some sledgehammer subtle moments of foreshadowing and symbolism that took me right out of the show, and they need to work a little harder to make us care about these characters on the terms they’re establishing, not on the future we know is in store.
That identity crisis has an unfortunate habit of manifesting itself in a number of forced, awkward character moments that fall somewhere on the spectrum between the expected pilot problem of characters explaining who they are to each other and some rather desperate attempts to appeal both to hardcore comic book scholars and more casual Batman fans. So, while it’s good to know that they aren’t shying away from Renee Montoya’s sexuality, the fact that it’s introduced to us through a rather heavy-handed scene with Jim Gordon’s fiancee is a little unfortunate. Are they making a play on words/connection between Barbara’s maiden name of “Keane” with Batwoman’s (who the comic book Montoya had a romantic relationship with) of Kane? Then again, this might just be an irritating “comic book fan” reading of that scene. Your mileage may vary.
The good news is, these clunkers are (mostly) offset with a few moments and performances that could feel right at home in any big-screen version of the Batman legend. For example, John Doman’s Carmine Falcone is actually a wonderful touch, and a fine departure from the usual gangster stereotypes that populate Batman lore. If handled properly (and I do hope we see more of him), this is a character who can add some nuance to the occasionally cartoony proceedings.
Unfortunately, this episode’s overall plot doesn’t do the show any favors. Even by police procedural standards, this is a fairly thin story. It’s understandable that the murder of the Waynes (and his promise to Bruce) is going to be the motivating force for Jim Gordon to stay on the straight and narrow, and to allow Bullock’s eventual redemption. But I do worry that if every episode is going to follow the “this might be the guy who shot the Waynes…oh, wait, nevermind” formula, Gotham may get tired really fast. On the other hand, future episodes won’t have to do the same gymnastics that this one did to put all the familiar pieces in place, and I imagine I should have more faith in Bruno Heller (Rome).
In a TV landscape that now brings us an expanded DC Universe every single week on Arrow (and soon to be twice a week when The Flash arrives), Gotham‘s superhero sleight-of-hand suddenly feels a little old-fashioned, like a throwback to Smallville‘s too cool for its own good “no tights, no flights” edict. On the other hand, if Gotham quickly picks a direction and runs with it, and perhaps doubles down on its commitment to not be a Batman show, but rather a strict police procedural that just happens to be set in Gotham City, there’s a chance this could develop into something fascinating. It will have to be better than this pilot, but then again, you could say that about most shows.
I’ll be back next week, and we can really start picking apart the DC Comics easter eggs in the show (oh, don’t worry, don’t think I forgot about Crispus Allen, for starters). Got a name for this section of the reviews? Something better than Bat-Signals, perhaps? Seriously, help me out. Let me know in the comments, please!